The Fab Five

The histories of BMW’s five IMSA-specification CSLs can resemble a tangled web, but new information has allowed us to clarify the role of each car in building BMW’s early reputation as the Ultimate Driving Machine in North America.

Photo: The Fab Five 1
December 1, 2016

History, they say, is written by the winners. Certainly this has been largely true with respect to world conflict, but the same doesn’t necessarily apply to automotive history. For various reasons, the histories of individual cars tend to be confused or embellished, especially when the car in question is one of high value or importance. Ultimately, though, it all gets sorted out. It may take decades, but eventually the right people come forward with verifiable information that resolves conflicts or fills a gap in the timeline.

Race cars present an even more daunting challenge to the historian, because they’re routinely modified and developed from race to race during their active careers. Furthermore, the teams that race these cars typically view them as expendable tools in the quest for victories.

As the person currently in charge of the BMWUSA Classic collection, which includes several race cars, it has been my task to retire our active race cars into the collection in the livery, configuration and level of technical development that represents the most important time in their short racing careers. I’m also responsible for documenting that history so that my successors 40 to 50 years from now will know exactly what each of these cars achieved.

Archiving the history of a race car is much easier today than it was a few decades ago. We now have robust, easily stored, searchable electronic files rather than paper documents, including thousands of digital photos and videos, that can chronicle the entire history of each car. In 1975, when the IMSA CSLs we’ll be looking at here were new, notes were often hand-written, photography was expensive and required a fair amount of skill and video cameras were just starting to be available to consumers. Scant resources are available to piece together the individual histories of these five nearly identical-looking race cars, resulting in much confusion over the years and making the task of correcting that history a daunting one.

History: It’s a work in progress

This magazine has a strong track record of researching and documenting the history of significant BMW street and race automobiles, including the IMSA CSLs we’re revisiting here. In Bimmer #31 back in December 2002, David Katz authored the most plausible documentation of the history of the five cars that were thought to have raced the IMSA Camel GT series in the U.S. during the first year that BMW of North America was incorporated. Katz conducted extensive interviews with just about everyone he could find who’d been involved with that program, but the information he was able to obtain remained incomplete…and some of it was incorrect.

Recently, we discovered new information that refutes some of what was written in that article, and which allowed us to solve a few of the mysteries that surrounded the cars at the time. We still don’t have the complete histories of these important cars, but their early histories are now much clearer.

As we prepared to celebrate the 40th anniversary of BMW NA’s first race win at Sebring in 1975, BMW Motorsport’s current IMSA program manager, Jürgen Gnamm, happened to mention that his retired mentor Rudi Gmeiner had been chief mechanic for the CSL program back in 1975, working out of shop space rented from NASCAR legend Bobby Allison in Hueytown, Alabama.

Gnamm referred to Gmeiner and his colleagues as “The Cowboys,” and he helped us contact most of them for a reunion in Florida last year. The Cowboys turned out to be a great bunch of enthusiastic mechanics and engineers who are rightfully proud of their achievements 41 years ago. Through their handwritten notes and collective memories, we were able to piece together a much more complete picture of the history of the 3.0 CSLs that competed in the U.S. in 1975 and 1976. Incidentally, the story of that first season of BMW racing in America has been chronicled in a BMWUSA Classic film titled Go Like Schnell: The Story of BMW Racing In America, Green Flag 1975.

Many questions about the CSLs still remain, but now we know much more about these five iconic cars than ever before.

The Kommisionbuch
The Rosetta Stone of racing chassis numbers

Initially, it was believed that the five cars raced in the U.S. bore serial numbers 2 275 984 to 988. We now know that this is not exactly true. Chassis 2 275 984 was built to IMSA specification late in the 1975 season, but it was built as a show car rather than an active race car. That means the IMSA cars raced by BMW NA bore serial numbers 985, 986, 987, 998 and 992. The last of those, 992, was originally built for racing in Europe and then converted to IMSA Group 4 specification; more on this later.

On the occasion of the BMW 100th Anniversary celebrations in Monterey this past August, BMW NA was able to assemble all five cars at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion—likely the only time they have ever been together in one place. We were also able to have on hand a very proud Rudi Gmeiner, electrical technician Peter Heiss and designer/fabricator Art Simonds for the occasion. The 2002 Bimmer article implied that all but one of the five cars were shipped to the U.S. at the beginning of the 1975 season; it then attempted to chronicle each car’s racing history through 1975 and beyond. On the contrary, Gmeiner said he was quite sure that the team started with two cars initially and that the other chassis were substituted in over the season.

From this assertion, it was believed that the first two cars—the ones that would have raced at the season opener in Daytona and then given BMW its big victory at Sebring—would be those with the lowest chassis numbers, namely 984 and 985. However, some documentation suggested that highest chassis numbers in the range—987 and 988—were the Daytona and Sebring cars. Why would the first and therefore the oldest chassis have the latest/highest serial numbers? It would be much more plausible for the lowest chassis numbers to be the first cars.

To add to the confusion, the Cowboys typically didn’t use the chassis numbers for identifying the cars in their race reports but rather by a Build Code like “E9-R2-13,” for example, where E9 was the model code, R2 was the revision number and 13 was the car number in ascending order (i.e. a higher number meant a later car). Not even the Cowboys could rationalize the conflicting information…until recently.

Gmeiner and the other Cowboys worked hard to solve the puzzle. Eventually, Gmeiner was able to produce a hand written document labeled Kommisionbuch (which roughly translates to “build book”) that listed all the racing CSLs built and who had built them. Interestingly, this document was referenced in the original article, but its significance was not fully understood. This document provided the solution to the chassis chronology and cross-referenced the chassis numbers with the Build Codes. It is, in effect, the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mystery of the racing CSLs.

As one would expect of a logical German company, BMW Motorsport decided that the homologation group of street CSLs would start at serial number 2 275 001 and go upward from there. Then, in order to keep the race car chassis number range separate, BMW Motorsport decided to start the race car serial numbers at 2 275 000 and progress downward. It was, dare I say, un-Germanic logic, in which the lower the serial number, the later the car was built. To confuse matters further, the Build Codes were issued in ascending order, with later cars having higher numbers.

With this crucial piece of information in hand, many mysteries could finally be unraveled, and the provenance of each IMSA CSL could be established with reasonable certainty. In doing so, we’ll start with the earliest car, the one with the paradoxically highest chassis number.

2 275 992
From T Car to Art Car

Contrary to what was previously reported, only four CSLs were raced by BMW Motorsport/BMW of North America in 1975-’76 IMSA Camel GT seasons, but a fifth car was sent to the U.S. to serve as the “T” or “test” car early in 1975. This car, chassis 2 275 992, was originally an FIA-specification car that was modified to IMSA Group 4 specification and tested at Daytona and Sebring (and for aerodynamics at Talladega) prior to the start of the ’75 season. After completing the tests, 992 returned to Munich in March 1975. Presumably, it was retained in the BMW Motorsport workshops until it was updated to FIA Group 4 specification and pressed back into service as the lead car for the 1975 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What is even more interesting is that 992, before racing at Le Mans, became the canvas for the first BMW Art Car, which was painted by American artist Alexander Calder.

Where history is concerned, that gave 992 an advantage over the other IMSA CSLs. Today, in addition to being one of the most revered BMW Art Cars, the Calder CSL is also a perfect, untouched time capsule of CSL technology development at mid-season 1975.

2 275 988
DNFs at Daytona and Sebring, then back to Europe

We can now confirm that 988 was one of the two initial cars to race in the 1975 IMSA season. The cars that contested the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring were 988 and 987, and there is no doubt now that 988, running race number 24, was the Sam Posey/Hans Stuck car for both of those races. 988, therefore, was the “hare” sent out by Jochen Neerpasch to set a pace that he hoped would be fast enough to break the Porsches at Sebring. 988 retired from Daytona with a blown engine and from Sebring from an oil line failure.

After Sebring, 988 was partially converted to Group 5 specifications with wider fenders and wheels (14.5-inch fronts and 17.5-inch rears) for testing at Road Atlanta in the week prior to the Road Atlanta 200 mile Camel GT Challenge races in April. Unfortunately, Sam Posey crashed badly during the test and 988 could not be repaired in time for the upcoming race weekend. 988 was sent immediately back to the shop in Hueytown, and the newly arrived 986 chassis was pressed into service to replace it.

From Hueytown, the partially updated and damaged 988 was returned to Munich for repairs and was provided to Team Faltz after their car was destroyed. In Europe, 988 enjoyed considerable success as a Group 5 car under the preparation of Team Faltz.

988 is currently owned by Andrew Cannon of Australia, who had it beautifully restored with the black #42 Team BMW Faltz livery in which it was presented at the 2016 Rolex Reunion.

2 275 987
The 1975 Sebring winner, verified

Until now, it was widely believed that 985 (owned by BMW NA) was the Sebring winner and that 987 had been a spare car. However, we can now confirm that it was, in fact, 987 in which Brian Redman, Allan Moffat, Hans Stuck and Sam Posey took their famous victory in Sebring in 1975. Redman drove for more than seven of the race’s 12 hours, battling a failing wheel bearing and a dead alternator in the eleventh hour to bring the car home to victory. Redman recounts that he conserved battery power by driving with the headlights off (not an easy feat in the darkness of Sebring!) everywhere except on the front straight in an attempt to avoid being black-flagged.

The two-race third round at Road Atlanta was unfortunately not very kind to the BMW team. In 987, Posey crashed out of the first race due to a rear hub failure after running as high as 4th, putting an end to his weekend.

In 1976, the records are now clear that 987 competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona as the No. 25 Hermatite-sponsored car, driven by John Fitzpatrick and Tom Walkinshaw to 15th position. In March 1976, 987 was shipped back to Munich, converted to Group 5 specification and raced with great success in Europe during the 1976 season, still under Hermatite sponsorship. With Fitzpatrick and Walkinshaw, it took a win at Silverstone and second place at Zeltweg.

In August 1976, 987 came back to the U.S. to run in the Watkins Glen 6 Hour endurance race at the hands of Fitzpatrick, Walkinshaw and Redman, but it did not finish due to a fuel tank issue.

987 remains in Group 5 specification and is owned and actively vintage raced by Henry Schmitt of BMW San Francisco, wearing the #58 BMW Motorsport livery.

2 275 986
The 1976 Daytona winner

Of all the IMSA CSLs, chassis 986 is probably the car with the most completely documented provenance. As earlier reported in Bimmer, there is no question that 986 is the car that Peter Gregg raced under #59 throughout the 1976 season. 986 is also, without any doubt, the CSL driven to the win in the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona by Gregg and Brian Redman.

In a race shortened to about 21 hours because of water in the track’s fuel supply that caused many cars (including the CSLs) to stall on track, Redman drove 14 very long stints with some help from Fitzpatrick (whose sister BMW had retired) because Gregg said he was feeling ill. On top of that, at 4:00 a.m. the engine lost a cylinder, though Redman kept the CSL humming along faster than the fastest Porsche RSR by shifting at the 9,000-rpm redline. Following the race, an exhausted Redman returned to hotel to clean up before the celebration party and promptly fell asleep in the tub. A still-fresh Gregg was the life of the victory party and personally thanked the crew in German for their hard work.

Well before it raced to glory at Daytona ’76, 986 had arrived in the U.S. in March 1975 as the spare car. 986 wasn’t a spare for very long, becoming the replacement car for 988 which Posey had crashed in testing at Road Atlanta in the spring of 1975. Unfortunately, Stuck had a massive crash in the new 986 during practice for the race at Road Atlanta a short time later. Some reports say that he hit oil and spun backwards into the guardrail and embankment; others suggested a failure of an experimental ABS system. In any case, the new 986 was badly damaged with less than two weeks before the next race weekend at Laguna Seca.

Gmeiner says the team worked around the clock for seven days to complete the car in time to be loaded into the transporter for the cross-country trip. Since both active race cars (987 and 986) were badly damaged, the team withdrew one entry and concentrated on getting 986 ready. Their efforts were well rewarded at Laguna: At the hands of Hans-Joachim Stuck, the repaired 986 secured a second place finish in the first heat and then took victory in the second.

After Laguna, the team traveled directly to Riverside for a 6 Hour endurance round. Here, driven by Stuck and Dieter Quester as the #25 car, 986 earned another dominant victory.

It is probable that 986 competed in all the remaining rounds of the 1975 season, but at this stage that cannot be confirmed. However, we do know that it raced at Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio and Mosport, though we can’t say whether it ran as car #25 or #24 in those races.

As was stated in the 2002 Bimmer article, the end of the 1975 season saw 986 (and 985) delivered to Peter Gregg, who would run BMW’s IMSA program going forward. Prior to closing up operations in Hueytown, Gmeiner himself installed the new parts which converted 986 into one of the first CSLs with the upright M49 engine.

Today, 986 is owned by Kevin Ladd, who acquired it from longtime owner and racer Kenper Miller. Like Miller, Ladd has the car maintained by Jack Deren, who’s cared for it for over 40 years. It’s beautifully preserved in its #59 Peter Gregg Motorsport livery.

2 275 985
Late arrival, and the BMW NA car

Originally believed to be the 1975 Sebring winner, 985 is now known to have arrived in the U.S. after the Laguna Seca round in early May that year.

After the disastrous Road Atlanta weekend in April 1975, the team was able to repair 986 in time for the next race at Laguna but decided to retire 987 in favor of a new car. Chassis 985 was flown directly from Munich to California to meet up with the team right after the two sprints at Laguna Seca had been completed, as they were on their way directly to Riverside for the 6 Hour endurance race.

Gmeiner’s records indicate that 985 was driven by Redman and Posey as the #24 car at Riverside and finished in second place. During Redman’s stint, the “Oil Press[ure]” light came on, so he pitted immediately. The crew checked the car, determined it was just a sensor issue and sent him back out. Driving at his best, Redman proceeded to re-pass the entire field to catch up to his teammate in the 986 car, and he ultimately finished second.

The Riverside one-two was a great result for the team and the young BMW brand. BMW Motorsport’s usually reserved team boss Jochen Neerpasch was especially happy that his team had managed a sweep for visiting BMW Chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and VP of Sales Hans Schönbeck.

Later in May 1975, 985 went on to place second and third in the two Lime Rock sprints, driven by Stuck with race number #24. At the following round at Mid-Ohio, Sam Posey finished second in 985, also racing as #24. Redman drove 985 at Mosport as #25 but didn’t finish the race. It is probable that 985 competed in the remaining rounds of the 1975 season, but at this stage that cannot be confirmed nor can we say whether it ran as car #25 or #24.

Chassis 985 has been owned by BMW North America since the early ’90s and has benefitted from a couple of cosmetic restorations over the years. The car is a familiar sight competing at the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in the capable hands of BMW NA CEO Ludwig Willisch. 985 has also been the poster car for all the BMW NA 40th Anniversary celebrations. Along with 984, it’s the only CSL that remains in something close to its 1975 Group 4 specification, and it is the jewel of the BMW USA Classic Collection.

2 275 984
Show and display only

David Katz’ Bimmer article had speculated that 984 was probably the Hermatite car, but we now know without any question that the Hermatite car was instead 987. Katz’ research with the Peter Gregg mechanics has several instances where 984 was confused with 987, which we can now clear up. 984 was the last IMSA-specification CSL and was constructed in July 1975. From the beginning, it was built specifically as a show car for the IAA Frankfurt Auto Show that fall. Although 984 is a complete car with engine, drivetrain and complete ABS system, it was never in the U.S., nor did it ever turn a wheel in a race. Instead, it appears that 984 was handed over to the Mobile Tradition/BMW Group Classic collection after the IAA, and it has remained there ever since. As such, it is truly the best time capsule car of the IMSA Group 4 specification in 1975. In fact, it’s still equipped with the experimental ABS system in the trunk. When the expanded BMW Museum opened in 2008, 984 was placed on permanent exhibition in the Motorsports room, where it remains to this day.

On a side note, the BMW Motorsport team experimented with ABS as early as 1973 with the hope that it could give the CSL an advantage. The highly complex and marginally reliable system made its race premiere with Stuck at the Nürburgring 1000 km in 1974. The IMSA team experimented with the system, as well, but could not get it to operate consistently. In failure mode, the car would revert to normal braking. The result was that the driver could never truly rely on having ABS. In the end, the system was abandoned, and the only remaining example of this early ABS is mounted in 984.

The cars that started it all in North America

In the end, unless you are lucky enough to own one of these wonderful cars, it really doesn’t matter which specific chassis had which specific race history. Even without the individual provenances, it’s obvious that these five cars are an incredibly important part of BMWs history in the USA.

They’re still loved and revered, 41 years later, by BMW fans across the country and indeed around the world. You could even say that these four race cars and one test car changed the course of history for BMW by dramatically increasing awareness for the brand here in the U.S. when many Americans thought BMW stood for British Motor Works. In one short season of racing, the white and tri-color striped 3.0 CSLs with their Bavarian Motor Works windshield banners changed that perception.

These big, upright coupes did more than just establish the meaning of an acronym, of course. They raced against the best sports cars of their day and beat them all, and in doing so they played a big part in cementing the veracity of the marque’s new advertising tagline as the Ultimate Driving Machine.

The story of the IMSA CSLs is still incomplete, but thanks to the Cowboys who built them, raced them and preserved them, we now have a much clearer picture of their early history.

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